by Michael Winship
In this bicentennial year of Abraham Lincoln’s birth, I recently was rereading part of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s epic history, "Team of Rivals." Once again it was stunning to see the number of casualties during the Civil War, the dead and wounded in four years of fighting exponentially outnumbering the American men and women killed and wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan over six and a half years of combat.
On both sides of the Civil War, 618,000 were killed, although some estimate as many as 700,000. In just the three days of the Battle of Gettysburg, July 1863 – more than 51,000 dead and wounded. Chickamauga, Georgia, two days, September 1863, nearly 35,000. Chancellorsville, Virginia, four days, May 1863, more than 30,000. And on and on.
"The war took young, healthy men and rapidly, often instantly, destroyed them with disease or injury," Drew Gilpin Faust notes in her 2008 book, "The Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War." "… Loss became commonplace; death was no longer encountered individually; death’s threat, its proximity and its actuality became the most widely shared of the war’s experiences."
Up until that time, Faust writes, the US Army had neither regular burial details nor grave-registration units. Such duties "seemed always to be an act of improvisation." Often the townspeople in or near a battleground wound up with the task. Many of the enlisted went unidentified, their bodies hastily placed in mass graves for fear of disease.
Contrast that with the painstaking care given each of the dead today when they arrive from Iraq or Afghanistan at the Carson Center for Mortuary Affairs, the joint military facility headquartered at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware. Bodies and personal effects are thoroughly washed and cleansed, dress uniforms are individually tailored for the corpse, even the individual’s wristwatch is carefully set to the time at the location where they fell. When each body is ready to leave Dover, all the service personnel at the mortuary stop what they’re doing and form a line along the driveway, giving a slow, ceremonial salute as the hearse passes by.
I learned this a few weeks ago, when I happened on the telecast of the HBO made-for-TV movie, "Taking Chance," the true story of Marine Lt. Col. Michael Strobl – played in the film by Kevin Bacon – who in 2004 escorted the body of Lance Corporal Chance Phelps, killed in Al Anbar Province, Iraq, to its final resting place in Dubois, Wyoming.
I knew about the film but hadn’t made plans to watch it. Nonetheless, coming upon it by accident, I was totally pulled in by the eloquent simplicity of the script, its attention to detail and lack of melodrama, the poignancy of Strobl’s and Phelps’s stories and the people "they" meet as Strobl accompanies the body on its final, cross-country journey. (You can continue to see the film through this month, at various times, well worth the fewer than 90 minutes it takes to view. Check the schedule at HBO.com.)
Coincidentally, the film’s release came at the same time as the Pentagon’s announcement that it was lifting the ban on photographs and videos of bodies arriving at Dover, a proscription that had been in place since the first Gulf War in 1991. A similar renewed openness is taking place as the military and the Department of Veterans Affairs become more candid about suicide and PTSD, post-traumatic stress disorder.
Alarmed by the increasing rate of suicide, the Army has begun releasing monthly numbers, in addition to the annual reports produced in the past. 2008 was a record high – 128 confirmed suicides and 15 under investigation. The rate has been increasing steadily since 2004.
Last month there were 18 suspected suicides, up from 11 the previous year. In January there were 24, up from five in January 2008. According to The Associated Press, "Usually the vast majority of suspected suicides are eventually confirmed, and if that holds true it would mean that self-inflicted deaths surpassed the 16 combat deaths [in January] reported in all branches of the armed forces in Iraq, Afghanistan and other nations considered part of the global war on terror."
The Army’s suicide rate is now exceeding the US civilian rate, for the first time since the military began keeping records in 1980.
"Why do the numbers keep going up?" Army Secretary Peter Geren asked rhetorically at a press conference last month. "We cannot tell you."
Experts say PTSD is a big reason – the RAND Center for Military Health Policy Research estimates that 19 percent of all the troops who have served in Iraq or Afghanistan suffer from it – some 300,000 men and women.
Others point to the high rate of redeployment. According to a new report in the Boston Phoenix newspaper, "With the number of personnel that have served in the two theaters reaching nearly 1.8 million, critics estimate that one-third have served multiple deployments." With that redeployment come incredible stress and anxiety, not only on the battlefield but back home, where marriages and other relationships collapse from the strain.
This past fall, the Army announced a $50 million, five-year joint study of suicide with the National Institute of Mental Health. And this week, the service will be wrapping up a month-long training program to help soldiers recognize suicidal behaviors in their comrades.
But much more needs to be done. "We keep getting studies," Rep. John Murtha, chair of the House Defense Appropriations Committee, said at a March 3 hearing. "That’s the problem with the Defense Department – they study it to death."
What’s more, according to an Army Medical Department’s 2008 report, 33 percent of the troops in Afghanistan and 21.8 percent in Iraq say when it comes to mental health, their leaders discourage them from seeking help.
That has to stop. We must treat the living as respectfully as we do the dead.
Michael Winship is senior writer of the weekly public affairs program Bill Moyers Journal, which airs Friday nights on PBS. Check local airtimes or comment at The Moyers Blog at www.pbs.org/moyers.